Author Archives: clairegebben

Camera Obscura

“I’ve done some research on Edinburgh,” Dave told me before our trip, “and the Camera Obscura struck me as the most intriguing.”

imageAt the time, I filed his remark away amid an ever-growing list of things to do. Yesterday, amid the throngs of tourists in the streets on their way up to the Edinburgh Castle, my gaze fell on the Camera Obscura “lighthouse.” We hoofed it over.

imageEstablished in 1853, the six floors of displays at the Camera Obscura does not disappoint. (Photo at left is the first of many optical illusions.) We almost missed our 10 a.m. appointment at the top level observatory getting lost in the Bewilderment Room, a maze of mind-bending mirrors. The proprietors keep the place up to date (I enjoyed watching a five-year-old kick a soccer ball on a virtual field) but also true to its 19th century origins.

imageThat is, the top floor camera obscura, still in operation based on its simple principle of mirror-reflected light. After being treated to a 360-degree visual and informative guided tour of the city, we then stepped outside on the parapet to see it all with our own eyes. True to our 21st century reality, a big attraction these days is the view of Heriot’s School, of which it is said J.K. Rowling had a clear view from her window as she wrote about Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft in Harry Potter.

Dawn in Edinburgh

imageMy first trip ever to Scotland! Morning dawns, and I’m psyched. We’re staying on the Royal Mile, a tourist mecca that I’m told extends in some places four-five stories under the ground.

Driving into town last night on the left(!) side of the road, the map was not clear about the three dimensions of the streets, a logic puzzle made of stone. It took us about five, random, winding times down Cowgate to assemble in our minds how our hotel was actually located on the bridge above us, up over our heads.

imageAfter 26 hours of planes, trains, buses and automobiles, here we are!

So what are you finding out?

As I talk with friends and writers about research progress for my current novel about Scottish immigrants to America in the 18th century, their eyes light up. “So what are you finding out?” they want to know.

I flounder for an answer to this question, because very little is straightforward. I’ll stumble upon a thread of historical interest here, another there. In isolation, the info doesn’t mean all that much. Woven together, though, a tapestry begins to emerge.

scots banishedFor instance, a book I came across at Fairview Park Library in Cleveland. When I arrived, I went first to the reference desk.

“I’m looking for information about Scottish immigrants,” I said.

“You’re talking to one,” said the librarian. Her accent wasn’t overt, but she still had a trace of that charming Scottish burr. “What do you want to know?”

Delighted, I introduced myself and we chatted over topics such as the Orange Walk, Hogmanay and cultural differences between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Until her phone rang, that is, at which point I moved on to browse the genealogy stacks, where one title in particular grabbed my interest: Scots Banished to the American Plantations, 1650-1775.

Banished. Even in genealogy circles, that word doesn’t crop up every day. I wondered how many McIntoshes, Smiths and Stewarts had been banished. Any of them from my region of Inverness-shire? As it turned out, quite a few. Regarding McIntoshes, a Jane, John, and Peter–a knitter, fiddler, and laborer–had all been transported/banished by the Brits from Inverness to the “Leeward Isles” in 1747. (But a French privateer intercepted the ship and took them to Martinique instead.)

1747. Just one year after the 1746 failed Jacobite rebellion that occurred at the Battle of Culloden, on McIntosh clan land, in Inverness. What struck me too was the number of banishments listed in the 1600s and early 1700s, and well beyond 1746 into the 19th century. Pages and pages of names. Each of these persons–whether soldier, merchant tailor or housebreaker–was sent, nay banished, to the Americas against his or her will.

Then this morning as I browsed through a book about John Knox and the Scottish Reformation (a movement that began in the 1500s), a similar thread emerged. After the aborted revolt in Scotland of Prince Charles Stuart in 1746, the book notes, “the English instituted a policy of stern repression in Scotland, and many of the adult men left that country.” (p.212-213, Douglas Wilson, For Kirk and Covenant)

Hmm — “many of the adult men left.” A tad misleading, yes? It seems to me many, if not most, of both men and women were banished against their will. Expediently shipped to a place of no return, torn from their families and a land they dearly loved.

Hence, I’m finding out the Scots endured a radically different experience than the Puritans, Quakers, Protestants, Jews and so on, those early settlers who made their exodus to the American colonies due to religious persecution, yes, but in solidarity, and mainly in search of liberty. The Scots, on the other hand, were transported, suffering isolation from their clans and disaffection from their captors and British colonial authorities. When these Scots arrived in the land of liberty, they came to serve a jail sentence. Perhaps a miscalculation on the part of the British crown? Scots rapidly grew in number to become a hefty chunk of the population.

a body of about 600,000 Scots made up about one-fourth of the population [of the American colonies] at the time of the Revolution. [p. 19, Morton Smith’s Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology]

And, as brave warriors, they fought valiantly in the American Revolution. In his book For Kirk and Covenant, Wilson posits that these same Scots brought with them a stubborn conviction in representative government, the rule of law, and separation of church and state. Could one go so far as to claim the U.S. government was founded by Scots Presbyterians? Well, they ought at least to be in the running, along with the Transcendentalists, the Freemasons, the Illuminati …

Off the beaten track

Jamestown, NYI left Buffalo heading south to the upper Ohio River valley to fit in a little book research on the Scots Settlement. On the way, I decided to make an extracurricular stop at the Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz Museum in Jamestown, NY, just to see what it was like.

imageOften it’s these off-the-beaten-track side trips that bring about the most wonderful encounters, and this sojourn proved no exception. I had just seen a sign that I’d entered Conewango, NY, when a horse and wagon trotted over the rise in the road coming straight toward me, then made a sharp turn into … a blacksmith shop! By the time I’d figured out I wasn’t imagining things, I was a quarter mile down the road.

imageOf course, I turned around. Sure enough, the sign for the shop hung plain as day: Rabers Blacksmith Shop. The horse and wagon I’d seen was parked right out front. I pulled into the parking lot and hopped out of my car, camera in hand. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to witness a working blacksmith shop in the 21st century. No sirree bob.

imageJust then, a young man with a black beard, broad-brimmed Amish-style hat and a kind smile strode by. He glanced down at my iPad.

“Mind if I take some pictures?” I asked.

He gazed at me reasonably. “That’s fine. Just don’t include any people in the shots.”

imageAs we walked toward the shop, I nearly cackled with happiness but managed not to, thank God. Inside, the forge fires weren’t lit just then, but I soaked in the ramshackle array of metal and rust, tools and worn wood. One blacksmith was just then loading a box of horseshoes. I asked if that was the bulk of their work.

“We used to do wrought iron work, but we got out of that,” he said.

“I hear wrought iron is a little hard to come by these days,” I said.


imageI lingered for a while, talking with three blacksmiths in all about the changes in the artisan craft, about how I’d written a novel, oddly enough, about 19th century blacksmiths, and about how guys who were practically kids showed  up at the Raber shop these days to watch and ask questions, which we all saw as a positive trend. It pleased me to leave a book with them, in trade for taking the photos. As I handed it over, the white pages were instantly blackened by coal-dusted hands. The blacksmith laughed. “A book’s gonna get dirt on it pretty quick in a blacksmith shop,” he said.

I smiled appreciatively, not minding in the slightest. Back on the road, I continued toward Jamestown, thanking my lucky stars.

Buffalo surprises

I lived in Buffalo for a few years in the 1980s, so I should know all about it, right? Home of hot spicy chicken wings and Friday fish fries, the Peace Bridge and lake effect snow. The place where President McKinley was shot in 1901 at the Pan American Exhibition, and where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in when McKinley died? This past weekend when visiting my friend John, my preconceived notion that I “know” Buffalo was seriously challenged.

Take, for instance, the 2015 Boom Days. They’ve only been around since 2002, but the festival, and the location of the festival at Silo City, were marvelous and exciting.

Lake Erie ice April  19We arrived on a gorgeous mid-afternoon when things were just getting started. But not the raising of the boom. Each winter, the ice boom stretches from Buffalo almost to Canada holding back the ice from Niagara River and the Falls to keep ice chunks from damaging property. Apparently the boom has been raised as early as March 1, and as late as May 7 (last year). But at the time of Boom Days 2015, 840 square miles of ice still linger on Lake Erie. I doubt the boom will be raised any time soon.

The venue of Boom Days was as startling as the concept. It took place this year in Silo City. Don’t even get me started on the history of grain elevators, about which a bronze placque stands near the marina.

Silo City, Buffalo, NY“I think of them sort of like the pyramids of Egypt,” John said as we wandered the grounds, me a few steps behind hooting above into the hollow silos, singing a chant to test out the harmonies.

In fact, photography workshops happen there on a regular basis.

Here are just a few of mine.

Historic Zoar Village

What a beautiful Saturday for opening day of the season at Historic Zoar Village.

I enjoyed talking at the Old Schoolhouse, and lunch at the Canal Tavern where John Elsass showed us a cellar to rival the cellars of southwest Germany.

For a few moments I was able to visit with Scott, the blacksmith who gives demonstrations and teaches classes at the operating coal forge.


If you’re ever in the neighborhood — off I-77 just South of Canton — I highly recommend a visit.

Cleveland historic B&B

I put off finding a hotel for too long prior to arrival in Cleveland — so many other things to do — so when I finally made some calls, there was no room at the inn.

Does Cleveland have B&B’s? I asked myself. I needed to be in Rocky River last night, so I searched the West Side, and sure enough, found a great place just off W. 25th, where all the great new pubs and microbrews are located, right near the signature West Side Market. Clifford House. Owner James Miner was great and welcoming, and cooked up a delicious breakfast, besides. Best of all, I slept really, really well.

Clifford House

First stops in Cleveland, WRHS and Loganberry Books

If you’re ever in Cleveland, don’t miss Loganberry Books. I found a treasure there (as I always do): Ohio Builds a Nation, a 298-page compendium of notable persons, places, and pioneer trivia in Ohio.

Friends John and Harriet took me there, and also to the Western Reserve Historical Museum. Somehow in visits past, I’d missed the original oil paintings on the walls. Here are just a couple.

The Cleveland Grays on Public Square, Northwest Quadrant
1839, by Joseph Parker
According to the interpretive sign, this is the earliest surviving oil painting of Public Square. It shows the parade of the volunteer militia the Grays, formed in 1837, as they marched in honor of their 2nd anniversary. The church pictured is the original Old North Presbyterian Church.
An Evening at the Ark
1835, by Julius Gollmann
The Arkites were an all-male club “of congenial spirits who met to discuss natural science, or play whist or chess, or talk sports.” Apparently their one-story meeting room, in a building where the Federal Building stands today, became so cluttered with specimens of flora and fauna that it resembled Noah’s Ark, hence their name. The painter is a German immigrant who was emulating the German genre of the day, the effort to portray everyday subjects as realistically and candidly as possible.

In Berlin, I found another example of this genre tradition from around the same time period.

Hasenclever’s “The Reading Room” at Berlin’s Bodemuseum

More evidence of the German influence in Cleveland of the mid-1800s. Not that I was looking for it or anything.

Ohio bound

I’m headed to Ohio, where I’ll be giving a variety of talks about the “story behind the story” of writing my historical novel The Last of the Blacksmiths and the little-told story of German immigrants to Ohio and Cleveland in the 1800s.

My first event is April 10 at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea for their German American Kulturabend.

Next up, Historic Zoar Village Saturday afternoon, April 11. Then Saturday evening I’ll be back in Cleveland Heights for an author reading/signing at Mac’s Backs– Books on Coventry with author Susan Petrone.

All the details about the events to come are on this web page here.

During my weeks of travel between now and the Ohioana Book Festival April 25, be sure to check back often — I’ll be sharing discoveries, genealogy tidbits, adventures and more on a daily basis.

Ethnic heritage in the U.S.

There’s a map provided by the U.S. Census bureau in 2000 detailing the location of immigrant populations by ethnicity, albeit 15 years ago. In 2013, the UK’s Daily Mail wrote an article about it here.The article states that by far the largest population in the U.S. — just under 50 million in 2000 — were of German heritage.

With DNA testing becoming more common, new demographics are being worked up at places like Admittedly, the population on the map numbers a quarter of a million, compared with 317 million surveyed for the 2000 census.

Now that I’m looking into the history of Scottish immigration, I’m finding the data on these maps less than enlightening. On both, a separate category for Scottish people is not delineated. Apparently, citizens of Scotland are lumped with the English, under Great Britain.

A closer look at the 2000 census map reveals the category “American”(not meaning Native Americans, who have their own separate designation). According to the Daily Mail article, these respondents called themselves Americans for political reasons, or because they are unsure of their identity.

Political reasons? Clustered mainly in the south, especially in the Appalachian mountains, so-called “Americans” chose this identity on the census due to political tensions that exist in the South regarding “those who consider themselves original settlers and those who are more recent.” What, like job seniority, where the earliest arrivals get more privileges than those who come after? Oh my.

On paper, the Scots (and Welsh) and English might fall under the same helmet. But in reality even today, a clear distinction is made between the Scottish people and the English, based on dialect, customs, and race. When it comes to that, the country of Scotland is actually two separate entities — the Highlanders, people mainly of Celtic origin whose original language was Gaelic (now spoken only in small remote areas of the Highlands), and Lowlanders, where most share a Saxon heritage with the English.

Especially for the Highland Scots, the erasure of their ethnic identity began well before their arrival in the colonies. Starting in the mid-1700s, the English had begun systematically dismantling their language, manner of dress, and clan way of life.